I wanted to visit a place with a strong character and authenticity preserved by its inhabitants. The idea behind undertaking this excursion was not to document the art forms or their processes but to capture the essence & the rawness of the place through portraits.

Me and my girlfriend Uma are both fond of travelling and exploring interesting places. We planned this trip over a period of 4 months which included bookings, reservations, finalising the routes and places to cover in the expansive Kutch district. We started our journey with the first place being the Little Rann of Kutch. We had a typical gujarati breakfast of fafda & gota on the way. The Rann is known for the wild ass sanctuary. The wild asses are classified as endangered species. After obtaining permission to enter the sanctuary, we were accompanied by a guide who was surprised when I expressed that my real interest was capturing portraits of the familes who work at the salt pans there and not the wild asses & other wildlife.

The beauty of the Little Rann of Kutch is very raw and stark with clear sky against the parched land, with only a mirage on the horizon separating the two.

We met this worker who works year round in the salt pans with the hot sun on his back and hardly any company. The worker’s accommodations were highly sparse and meager. A small hut with a stove, a cot and a solitary light bulb. He said that he has been working on the salt flatlands since he could remember; changes in land ownership and government regulations notwithstanding. “This is all I know !” he exclaimed.

Next was a family of four. The father was working in the salt flatlands, while the mother was making a red chilli paste for the lunch menu. These two girls helped their parents by cutting wood and doing chores around the little hut; the elder one, quiet and smiling while the younger one, mischievous. Both of them are studying in school, which they attend only 4 months in a year, spending 8 months on the flatlands. Posing for a camera proved to be a nice change in routine for them. The family also offered us black tea before we exchanged goodbyes.

After spending the morning & afternoon in the desert, we decided to take a break and visited a stepwell called as ‘Rani ki vav’ at Patan, a few kilometres up north from the Little Rann of Kutch, before retiring to our hotel in Ahmedabad. By the time we reached the stepwell, it was quite dark & so though I couldn’t really capture the beauty of those intricate carvings on the walls and the architectural opulence in my camera, I enjoyed being able to witness it with my own eyes. The first day proved to be a great start to a week long journey to follow. Next day we started early from Bhuj as the plan was to cover the villages known for the local artists with different skillsets. Several villages in Kutch are formed around communities which specialize in a specific art form. We rented a car for the rest of our journey. Luckily our car driver Mr. Mahendra Goswami was very friendly & well informed about the places of our interest. First we went to this village close to Bhuj called Dhaneti, known for Ahir embroidery.

Like a lot of villages in Kutch, the village has a physical doorway marking its entrance. This village is famous for its beautiful embroidery work. However, we chose an unfortunate day to visit. As a villager had passed away, the entire village was closed in mourning. Though the embroidery shops were closed, this kind lady allowed us into her own backyard to show the embroidery that they do. Conservative as she was, she did allow us to click a portrait of her inside her house though she was reluctant to get clicked outside.

The people of Kutch are usually shy and reserved. This is especially true if you have a camera in your hand. We experienced a certain wariness among the people, especially women, when we asked them if we could take a picture. The children however, were a different story. Uninhibited, carefree and playful, they were excited to be in front of the camera and to be the centre of attention.

Having seen us with the kids, some of the older ladies also got enthused by the idea of getting clicked. The children were crowding around them to ensure they do not miss out on all the fun. The women wearing an unusual array of colourful clothes along with the thick ivory jewellery on their wrists and ankles piqued our interest in clicking them.

Our spirit somewhat dampened by missing out on the beautiful embroidery work at Dhaneti, we decided to return back. Our ever helpful driver, Mr. Goswami, was talking to us about the surrounding area understanding that our interest lied in capturing the raw beauty of kutch. He mentioned silica mining in the area and we set out to locate the mines. These silica mines on the outskirts of Bhuj are numerous and production happens on a large scale. We visited the actual mining site where a surprising view awaited us. In the middle of the mine site was a lake formed by rain water that gets collected during monsoon. What was unusual was the color of water, it was a bright turquoise blue. The miners told us that the colour was owing to the minerals in the soil.

We also visited the plant site where the mined silica is turned into slabs that are then sold all over the country for the production of glass, ceramics, etc. The entire plant site is white with a fine layer of silica grains covering every surface. Working day in and day out in the production area had given the arms and legs of this worker a whitish cast too.

This impromptu visit to the silica mines was certainly rejuvenating and rewarding as well. Our next stop for the day was another small village Ajrakhpur, close to Bhuj. This place is known for a very interesting art called as block printing. When we entered one of the studios/workshop, it was interesting to see hundreds of hand-carved wooden blocks stacked on shelves, each one having different motifs. These wooden blocks are used to print designs on the cloth. It’s a complex but interesting process, which needs precise application in steps. Finally what’s produced are beautiful fabrics for dress materials, dupattas, blankets, sarees etc. We visited the shop where they sell fabrics, dress materials and sarees showcasing their own block printing work as well as other kinds of kutchi embroidery. The shop consisted of 4-5 rooms covered from floor to ceiling with piles of beautiful clothing, which we dug into with much enthusiasm. The owner of the shop, Mr. Khatri Tarmohmad, was a tall, bearded, old man with a magnetic personality, who showcased all the merchandise with a lot of patience and energy. We also met another man employed by the owner to help out in the shop who charmed us with his affable personality. Both of them readily agreed to be photographed. After a bit of chat & bonding over our respective arts it was time to bid adieu. But our day was far from over as our next stop was a neighbourhood called Bhujodi.

Bhujodi is famous for the art of handloom weaving. It is inhabited by around 1200 people of the Vankar community of weavers.

We visited the artisans spinning the yarn on the handloom, as well as the shop selling their work. Working on the handloom is a slow, tedious manual process but the workers made it seem easy and natural. We were wowed by the beautiful, colorful shawls, dupattas, blankets created from various fabrics. We interacted with the owner of the workshop to understand the handloom process. He also introduced us to his grandmother, who even at her ripe old age, still worked on the loom from time to time. Her traditionally adorned outfit and her heavy silver jewellery left us enchanted. She chose her favourite spot in her house to be photographed at. That was the final stop and portrait for the day.

On our way back to the hotel, Mr. Goswami suggested a roadside food outlet known for the authentic & sumptuous kutchi dabeli. Perfect way to end a tiring yet absolutely eventful day. We started our 3rd day pretty early as our next stop was Hodka, a village 64 kms to the north of Bhuj. A beautiful long stretch of NH341 takes you through the huge expanse of land on both sides with hardly any vegetation. We reached a junction at the Bhirandiyara village, where one needs to get the permit at the tourist facilitation centre to visit the white desert in the Dhordo area. After obtaining the permit, before heading for Hodka we stopped by at a roadside shack where we had the local sweet called mawa for breakfast. Mr. Goswami then took us to a small community in the Bhirandiyara village known for hand embroidery. It consisted of 4-5 traditional round bhungas with wall murals of mud and mirrors from inside. The men and women both work on creating different products like clothing, metal jewellery, hand bags, wall hangings, purses etc. This is a Harijan tribe which migrated from Marwar to the Banni region around 500 years ago. One of the women readily agreed to demonstrate the embedding of small mirrors into the hand embroidered cloth known as ‘Knajiri’. She soon got engrossed in her work, being in the comfort of her usual workspace, which made for a pretty picture.

After spending some time with the artists we left for Hodka but met a bunch of enthusiastic kids on the way who were helping each other with the extraction & breaking of stones. It looked liked a quarry of sorts. When I asked them if I could click their picture, they posed with curiosity and innocence without any inhibitions. Their faces lit up upon seeing their picture on my camera’s display.

We finally reached our eco-friendly resort Shaam-e-Sarhad in the Hodka village. It’s a beautiful resort with accommodation in the form of bhungas, tents, huts etc. We freshened up, had a tasty meal, took a quick nap and left for the white desert at Dhordo late in the afternoon. Lot of people had flocked in as Rann Utsav was around the corner. The extensive stretch of white land looked absolutely pristine. Lovely golden hues of the sun’s rays grazed the surface making the salt crystals shine. Kutch received heavy rains in 2015 & hence the water from the surface hadn’t completely evaporated. Walking over the surface proved to be a challenge due to it’s marshy nature. A girl got submerged almost till her knees but was pulled up by her friends. We somehow managed to walk a little further inside the desert to capture the wide expanse against the backdrop of the setting sun. It almost felt like being on another planet.

We started making our way back to the resort and while we were driving back Mr. Goswami suggested we stop at a small shack for tea. From the moment we got down from the car till we finished our tea, the temperature had suddenly dropped by almost 10 degrees & it was shivering cold by the time we reached our resort. That’s how funny the weather patterns are there. Even with 3 layers of clothes and a thick blanket, it was freezing cold. The next morning we left early for our final destination, Mandvi, which once used to be a major port of the region. We followed the same route we took to reach Hodka. After driving down a few kms we came across a big herd of buffalos crossing the highway with the breeders controlling the herd. These breeders are majorly from the Muslim community. We met one such Pathan from the Banni area with a striking personality and a skill to know each of his buffalos by its name. To our surprise, the respective buffalo used to respond with a grunt when he used to call out its name. Those distinct lines on his face spoke volumes about his experience and hardships.

After a brief but interesting encounter we resumed our journey. Somewhere between Bhuj & Mandvi, Mr. Goswami told us about a lake known as Khatri lake, which looked like any other lake but with one difference. It is infested with 7-8 big crocodiles. We decided to stop and see if we were lucky enough to spot any. We found a couple of them cooling themselves off on the shore. We observed them from a safe distance & left. Upon reaching Mandvi we checked in at the Rukmavati guest house owned and run by the very co-operative Mr. Vinod Bhatt. He suggested a lot of interesting places to visit in Mandvi. Our main places of interest were the ship building yards lined along the banks of Rukmavati river which flows between Mandvi & Salaya. I had planned to shoot portraits at the ship building yard in the evening. So we decided to explore the places suggested by Mr. Vinod in the meanwhile. We were super hungry, so the first place we checked out was a tiny restaurant tucked into a corner of the cramped lanes of Mandvi called as Osho. It’s known for its authentic Gujarati thali. It’s a perfect place to be at if you have an appetite for a heavy & tasty meal. We then proceeded to an interesting place which is a ship model making workshop as well as a museum known as Sagar Ship Models owned by Mr. Shivji Budha. He is a retired captain now in his 80s. He has spent most of his life sailing across the oceans and talks with pride and enthusiasm about the voyages he captained. It was during those days that he developed the art of model making which started as a hobby and later became a full time profession. He has employed a few trained artists who along with his son make models in the workshop. The museum is filled with lots of interesting ship models ranging from a few cms to a few feet. His models are displayed in different cities in India and in a few other countries. We really enjoyed the stories and knowledge he eagerly shared. We bought a small scale model of the confection ship as a souvenir.

It was almost time to start exploring the ship building yards and click some interesting portraits. We started with the yards on the Mandvi side bank of the river. Lots of ships were docked. We met a sailor who seemed to be applying silver paint on a metal stick which looked like an antenna. Upon approaching him, he said that the ship building work was stalled due to lack of funds and the craft of assembling ships out of wood by hand has started to take a hit. The process is tedious, requires a lot of planning, precise crafting etc. to ensure constructing watertight vessels, which can carry tons of weight. I clicked his portraits while he was reminiscing about his days in the sea. He then suggested to try out the Salaya side as there was an active ship building process going on.

We crossed the bridge and went on the opposite bank. There was a huge ship being built which was almost 3-4 storeys high. I approched a man who seemed to be the one in charge and asked a few things about the ship. He explained how the hulls were lined and prepared. The most interesting aspect was that nothing was mechanized or automated but everything was handmade, right from cutting the planks to installing them. When I requested him to click some portraits of the workers, he asked me to wait till they were done with their shift as they can’t afford to fall short of the day’s target. So I decided to have a little chat with them while they worked. But I had to climb up a vertical ladder with my camera which was almost 4 storeys high and supported only by bamboos. Quite a climb it was! Upon reaching the top I interacted with a worker who was also a sailor. He recounted his experience in the Arabian sea during a cargo shipment. His vessel was attacked by the Somali pirates and things got dangerous when the pirates started firing at them. He endured an injury when a bullet went through his calf muscles. Luckily it was a flesh wound & somehow they managed to escape the attack. He then agreed to be photographed after the shift was over and got back to his work. After their shift ended at 5 pm, I photographed him & a few other workers as the dusk light showered some lovely hues.

It dawned upon us that the trip was almost over as next day we had to head back home. We would have certainty liked to spend more time in Kutch but work wouldn’t give us that privilege. We decided to hit the Mandvi beach and enjoy the last sunset in the land of Kutch. Every moment of this trip was worth treasuring.


Abhishek Joshi